We sit down to meditate in order to help us tame the mind and find inner peace, but how should we best go about it? First of all, the environment is important. For beginners especially it is best to try and find a quiet place, free of distracting noises like talking or laughter, but natural noises like running water or birdsong are alright; especially if they give a relaxed feeling.
If we are sitting outdoors, then the countryside and other quiet places are good. It is especially good to sit at the top of a hill from which we can see a long way. Alternatively, to be by the calm ocean with no visual distractions is also very good. Often we do not have the opportunity to be in such places, but then we must try and find the quietest surroundings that we can.
If we are sitting indoors, the room should be as free as possible from distractions, and well-ventilated, not stuffy. The temperature should not be so cold that we shiver, nor so warm that we feel sleepy and dull. Generally, it is better for it to be a little cold rather than too warm, so that the mind is clear.
Once we have found the best environment for our practice, it is important to learn how to sit properly. The postures we use can affect how we feel in our meditation and our day-to-day life. If we look at it from a medical viewpoint, we can see that the body has arteries, veins and muscles, each connected to the organs. In the Tibetan and Chinese systems of healing these organs can be diagnosed and treated by putting pressure on particular parts of the hands, neck or feet. This is because of the meridians, the channels by which energies flow throughout the body.
When sitting, if we are careful not to block the flow of these energies, then they can flow freely without our becoming too uncomfortable or doing any harm to our body. We can see how, if an artery in one leg is blocked, then that leg will go to sleep. Similarly, a blockage in the flow of energy through the body while sitting will produce unhappy, unbalanced feelings. For example, some bad positions will feel good to begin with but after a few days may well produce feelings of depression. Other wrong positions, like having our head sunk down between our shoulders, might bring depression to begin with but later, after the session is over, an uncontrollable excitement may arise. Further, if we use angry words to our relatives and friends after doing the exercises, then our posture could be responsible.
However, some might disagree and prefer their own way of sitting because of the powerful experiences and emotions which arise, such as joy or anger. But we have enough of these kinds of extreme feelings already without needing to cultivate them further. So in doing these exercises we try to sit in a neutral, balanced way.
First of all. it is important, if possible, to sit in a cross-legged posture. The Lotus and Semi-Lotus postures are best. This is because they help one to sit for long periods with the spine erect and also help keep energies flowing self-containedly in the body. However, if we are not able to sit in them due, for example, to leg trouble or the stiffness of growing older, there is no need to try and break our legs. Sitting cross-legged is comfortable for most people and is quite acceptable. Otherwise, we can just sit in a chair. If we are young, however, and have no physical disability then it is useful to learn how to sit in the different versions of the cross-legged positions.
Either in the Lotus or Semi-Lotus position, we always put the left leg inside and the right leg outside. The left is folded first, followed by the right leg. With the full Lotus posture, one puts the left foot and ankle up on the right thigh and then puts the right foot and ankle up on the left thigh. In the Semi-Lotus position, the left foot is drawn in with the heel pointing towards the base of the spine and then the right leg is drawn in with the heel placed above the other one. Remember, however, to go cautiously if there is any difficulty with these.
Then we should try to straighten our backbone as much as possible up to our neck. This is partly because each organ in the body is connected through the nervous system to the spine. So if the spine is bent or out of place, then it can cause pain or discomfort in other parts of the body. When we straighten our backbone, our energies can flow freely. Our bodies should feel balanced, with the shoulders straight but relaxed, not forced back, and not higher on one side than the other.
In order to straighten the spine and keep it erect, we should use a small, hard cushion two to four inches in thickness and about twelve to fourteen inches square, depending on what is a comfortable position for us. If we are sitting in a Lotus position we should use a higher cushion (about four inches) as necessary. If crossing one or two legs over is too uncomfortable, then we may sit in the same way, but with the legs loosely crossed. Another possibility, which is comfortable for some, is kneeling supported by a low stool (sometimes called the Burmese posture with the legs tucked underneath the torso) or supported by cushions either way so that the back is balanced and straight.
There are two positions for the hands. We may rest the hands palms down on the knees with the elbows straightened; alternatively, we can rest the open right hand on top of the open left hand with the thumbs touching, but not pressing, and have the hands one and a half inches below the navel. In this second position, we should try not to have the hands resting too low or too high. The neck should be very slightly inclined, with the chin tucked inwards. The mouth should be slightly open with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth. In this way we can breathe through the mouth and the nostrils together in whatever position is comfortable.
Our eyes should be looking forward beyond the top of our nostrils, about one and a half to two yards in front of us. For beginners it is probably wiser not to close the eyes. However the eyes maybe closed if we are visualising something. We should remove glasses and not focus the eyes in an artificial way.
The position of the body is important. The idea is not to hold our body inside a rigid frame or chain it with pieces of iron like a prisoner. A relaxed way is better. For example, we can think of cotton wool. It is very loose and relaxed, while at the same time all the fibres are separate. They are together but in a loose way. Similarly, our posture should be balanced: neither too loose nor too tight. With practice, this will help our minds to be balanced also.
Question: Why is the cross-legged posture preferable to kneeling with the support of a bench or a cushion?
Rinpoche: In general, sitting cross-legged is more beneficial for the mind; but for those unable to sit that way then kneeling would certainly not be harmful.
Question: So if the legs are very tight and the knees stick up in the air when sitting cross-legged, should we persist in trying to sit this way? And if so, what advice can you give which will make it easier to do so properly?
Rinpoche: Yes, it would be useful to try a little physical training in order to achieve the ideal position. Different people have different problems in this respect, but in general regular exercises - stretching and so on - should be helpful, as well as regular massage. The important thing is not to try too hard, not to force anything.
Question: Rinpoche, do you feel it's significant that, as Westerners, over many generations we've become so used to using chairs?
Rinpoche: I wouldn't know exactly. Maybe it's a sign of restlessness, of being ready at any time to get up and move to somewhere else. Or it could be laziness - when you're halfway up and halfway down you don't need so much energy to go either more up or more down. But I'm only guessing.
Question: I find it easier to sit cross-legged when my right leg is tucked under the left one, rather than the other way round. Is this okay?
Rinpoche: It very much depends how far your therapy goes: if it's purely physical then it may not be so important; but if the aim is to practise meditation, too, then it would probably be more useful to try and learn the way that is suggested. So although in the beginning it may not really matter, a little courage now could be more beneficial in the long run.
Question: Why can't we have our palms facing upwards on our knees when we meditate?
Rinpoche: When you sit with your hands in that position, you are inviting energies and forces from outside (and hence distractions).
Question: I'm keen to sit in a full Lotus - how should I proceed?
Rinpoche: You can use various exercises to make your body more supple. However, the most important thing is to go gradually. If the postures do not come easily at the beginning, then only sit in them for a short time at the beginning in order not to strain the body. Otherwise the possibility of sitting in the Lotus posture will be impaired.